The CW’s “Riverdale” – Season 1 Review (SPOILERS + LONG)

The incest was more surprising than the murder.

Despite so much potential, Riverdale is yet to become the grand teen mystery show that it could be. With so many great shows ending, Riverdale has big boots to fill. But, unfortunately, the incest was more surprising than the murder. Deciding to cement the tone through the dark monologues of Jughead, depicting the show in quite frankly an off-kilter misrepresentation, is probably where I take my biggest issue. While never having read the Archie Comics, it’s my understanding that they’re vast to say the least, from superheroes to horror to romance reprints. It makes sense to want to roll off the back of previous successes, like Pretty Little Liars, but more often than not Riverdale doesn’t ground itself in the murder mystery of Jason Blossom. It’s much more layered than a simple whodunit, which works. There’s heart and chemistry on-screen and well-thought out plotlines – not to mention the cinematography is outstanding. And to keep it fresh and innovating, I understand the necessity of the murder storyline. What I don’t understand is why Riverdale believes itself to be this grandiose noir narrative.

Let’s break it down character by character.

The Great Archiekins:

Archie Andrews was my biggest annoyance at the start of the series. I couldn’t get passed the two dimensions of his character. Why exactly are we supposed to root for Archie? He’s male, straight, white, popular, buff… need I go on? There wasn’t any tangible substance to him, all he had to offer was a pretty face and an overtly sexualised pair of abs (which I definitely appreciate: the change of sexual focus onto a male lead instead of a female one). There just wasn’t anything real about Archie as a teenager that I could relate to, in the slightest. His parents’ divorce was peaceful, his love life is questionable and his jock-musician story line I had already gotten enough of from High School Musical. Seriously. Episode 9 where Cheryl’s family begins taking a liking to Archie and offer him more opportunities was straight up Sharpay and Troy in HSM2. I began to ignore him, mostly, until he took his shirt off or left the scene. The only moment in all 13 episodes that made me actually like Archie was in the finale, when he made his hand bleed punching the ice to get to Cheryl. In that moment I saw more than the resident chick magnet of Riverdale. But, of course, it was brushed off in a later scene to highlight his impeccable goodness and selflessness. Even his inappropriate sexual relationship with Ms. Grundy, which sheds some light on Archie’s personal insecurities on his own songwriting capabilities, was harpooned away quicker than she was. They could have easily explored the depth of his depracating self-worth and his clear issue with validation (and authority figures, to a degree) but none of that is actually seen and his romantic indecision is shoehorned into the plot while making sure at least once per episode we’re reminded of his body or his looks.

Betty Dye-Your-Damn-Roots Cooper:

The overachieving literal embodiment of a girl-next-door (there was no subtlety in the way they wrote that: her window looks into Archie’s) with an ambiguous mental illness and controlling parents. Unlike Archie, I didn’t dislike Betty but I also didn’t love her. There’s more to her than Archie, that’s for sure, and her character arc does address a lot about her undiscovered self. She grows a spine, standing up to her mother, and even grows to be more confident in her writing, her romance and herself. I did find it interesting that The Fair Lady and The Dark Lady were subverted, revealing Betty (The Fair Lady) to be much darker than resigned mean girl Veronica (The Dark Lady). In the first episode, her scene with Cheryl, being passive in her cheerleading uniform, contrasts wildly to her scene in the last episode where she chastises the people of Riverdale for not realising how much the town has changed. Her most compelling quality as a character, for me, is the whole “Dark Betty” exploration. I understand why the writers chose to keep it ambiguous and not discern everything in the first season (it was obvious that it would garner enough attention and fans to get a second) but I hope they continue to delve deeper into her psyche. Mental illness is still a subject of taboo with a lot of stigma attached to it, seeing the typical Betty Cooper girl next door figure admit to being mentally ill, and then seeking out help for it would normalise the topic to a lot of impressionable viewers and finally connote the message that mental illness is something we shouldn’t be ashamed of.

Hispanic Caroline Channing Veronica Lodge

The embodiment of social awareness in the form of a seventeen-year-old. Sharp-tongued with masterful one-liner delivery, it’s not hard to imagine where Camila Mendes’ career will take her. The most interesting scenes with Veronica had to be the ones where she interacted with Betty – it was made clear that their friendship would be a driving force of the show, enforcing positive female friendships where they don’t fight for Archie’s attention. And while I not only condone but support this representation, there were extremely equivocal moments that left me slightly stooped. She is definitely the character with the most feminist undertones: She owns her sexuality and femininity without it defining her personality entirely and is simultaneously strong yet vulnerable. But the writers making her socially aware seemed to be used as an excuse to be… less than progressive. For example, she jokes about failing the Bechdel test when she brings up her relationship with Archie to Betty but I can’t remember the last conversation the two of them had that wasn’t driven by their respective love interests. Self-awareness is not an excuse to be able to avoid criticism for doing the exact things you’re making fun of. For the most part, Veronica’s subplot is related to her morality and guilt of being a Lodge and what her father has done in the past to land him in jail. But as progressive a character as Veronica is, I can’t help feel robbed of the full potential of having a character like Veronica be better in a sense. She calls Kevin her “best gay”, she kisses Betty for shock value at cheerleading tryouts (which was marketed way too much in trailers to not be considered queerbaiting), and while she tackles slut-shaming by getting revenge on Chuck it ultimately opens up a whole new can of worms about race. In the comics, Chuck was a sensitive artist but on the show he’s a sleazeball who lies about his sexual conquests and is taken down by Betty’s article. Despite not wanting to, I couldn’t help but see the authority a blonde woman has over an African-American man take precedence. Similarly, The Pussycats are “saved” by Archie with some words of advice and he continuously takes over their gigs with his better songs. Archie even dates Valerie, a Pussycats member, and yet we know nothing about Valerie. Veronica being a WOC and a main character is great, but it seems to come at the expense of her being the only real main character that’s not white. Veronica has depth and is a better role model than past feminist icon characters on teen shows but is arguably only one in the promised multiple fleshed-out non-white characters of the diverse cast.

Not Asexual Jughead Jones:

The casting of Cole Sprouse as Jughead instead of Ryan Potter irks me. Asian-American representation in the media is harder to spot than a leprechaun and Sprouse’s wooden acting only added to my frustrations as I continued to watch him play the part of Juggie. For the most part, these actors don’t get to decide what their characters do. Thus, I cannot hold them accountable for not bringing compelling characters to life when the source material is so sparsely thin. The creative decision to remove Jughead’s asexuality from the story will always agitate and confuse me but even from a logical POV it takes away rather than adds layers to his story arc. On a show with young attractive people, you needs ships (relationships). It’s simple enough: ships=attention. Fans will post on social media and talk about their endgame ships and get the show more attention. But this only goes to show the necessity of an asexual character. If they really had to, they could have made Jughead have a relationship with Betty that’s not sexual (in the comics he’s aromantic as well). A non-sexual relationship hasn’t been portrayed on modern day television since Sheldon and Amy had coitus on The Big Bang Theory and taking away Jughead’s asexuality only distances it from being the progressive awe-inspiring show it so desperately wants to be. Not only that, but the show’s obvious focus on Jughead (more so because of Cole Sprouse than anything) and their insistence on making him likeable does the opposite for me. Sure, he’s sympathetic and humanised so the audience understands him but the writers’ take on his character development consists solely on Betty changing or “fixing” him. Coming from a broken home, Jughead doesn’t need a girlfriend. He needs a stable environment with healthy parental figures. Taking away his opportunity to move and be adopted shouldn’t be a dramatic montage to save him before he’s separated from his friends. That’s not what Riverdale should be telling their younger viewers. Realistically, Betty can’t be the sole light of his life and the fact that he wished to only be with her on his birthday is already telling of the co-dependency that’s bound to occur because of Jughead’s lack of stable relationships. His and Archie’s relationship is one that I cannot fault. Mostly because all they do is sit in Archie’s room, eat pizza, play video games and talk about girls. Which is, for the most part, what teenage boys do and this sense of normalcy makes Jughead less annoying… until they throw a scene of Betty calling Jughead’s alcoholic father to surprise him for his birthday to prove how thoughtful she is and make Jughead look unreasonable during their argument when F.P. does nothing out of the ordinary. I would have appreciated it more if the Bughead relationship had been allowed to blossom into a detective-styled friendship, one where boys and girls can finally be shown to be platonic without sexual undertones, instead of throwing them together for the sake of shipping drama.

Cheryl Bombshell Blossom

Cheryl was actually one of the more nuanced characters. Often times, she was able to be the show’s self-critic. I was expecting her to be welcomed into the fold by the end of the season, especially with how her story ended, like Jughead was. We see Cheryl’s perfect life crumble behind the walls she has built, which is a reoccurring theme throughout the show with heavily featured lineage and family. Cheryl’s especially is under a magnifying glass since her brother’s murder. Her, at times, abusive family life leads her to attempt to reach out to the core four, sans Jughead, on multiple occasions only to be neglected and lash out. We see this mostly with Archie and Veronica, who each have a roller coaster of a relationship with Cheryl respectively. She has public meltdowns, anxiety attacks and is cracking under the pressure of being the perfect Blossom child now that there’s only one left. Veronica is there for her until the story needs to add frenemy banter and then she’s back to hating Cheryl for what her parents did to her father. Cheryl doesn’t seem to be in control of many things. Even her Vixen cheerleaders are masterminded by her mother and so when she burns the Thornhill Mansion down, after attempting to kill herself at Sweet Water River, she finally takes action and stops asking for help all together. No one bothered to look beneath the surface of her life, and even when Veronica did all that came from it was her realising she’s lucky for having Hermione and not Mrs. Blossom as a mother. In theory, she and Jughead should have had some kind of reconciliation together. Veronica attempts to connect with Jughead when his father goes to jail, but the sentiment is hollow and short-lived. Cheryl’s support system died when her brother did. She could learn a thing or two about self-sustenance and -preservation from Jughead, but the only times she even addresses him is when she slaps him or uses a homeless slur toward him. Upon burning down her house, it’s a physical manifestation of her being free of the Blossom family (completely ignoring her mother wailing behind her as she stares at the flames engulfing the house) and in a way embracing being independent. She was forced to be by herself when Jason died but taking action against the house where she lived, where her brother, his murderer and their mother lived, depicts a gruelling decision of liberty that probably won’t be explored next season. Cheryl will be shoehorned as the occasional villainess of the show, again, or the damsel in distress and continue to never be allowed to be part of the group despite it probably being beneficial for the drama of the show.

Kevin Keller:

It’s clear the writers don’t know what to do with Kevin. He’s in some very important scenes (like the discovery of Clifford Blossom as Jason’s killer) and the next minute he’s suspiciously missing. The writers attempted to tie him up to the Jason Blossom murder, with Southside Snake Joaquin as his boyfriend and even having regular updates from his Sheriff father to give to the gang. There were many times I suspected him to be the killer because of this very reason. He had one foot in, one foot out. He seemed important but didn’t get the promotional posters that Josie got, despite being in more episodes than her. As for Jason, I had theories about Ms. Grundy coming back and Polly’s babies not actually being his only to be trivially disappointed upon the anti-climactic resolution of Clifford having shot his son. I kept waiting for the twist to come, that Kevin had staged the whole thing. Having a gay character as a villain is difficult. It can be challenging to navigate, but when done well it can actually help to normalise homosexuality and people’s understanding that gays, lesbians, bisexual people, trans people are people and everyone is different. Revenge managed to use an exhausted trope of a gay guy falling for a straight guy with Tyler and Daniel and turn it into his villainous motivation but contrasted it with positive representation later on with Nolan’s exploration of his bisexuality. I wouldn’t have been angry if Kevin was the killer as it would have added to his character and completely thrown the dynamics with the other characters for a loop, something I was expecting to happen but since Clifford didn’t really have a tangible relationship with many characters, the reveal fell flat.

At this point I don’t trust the Riverdale writers to take any risk that could potentially pay-off later. Even with Fred Andrews being shot in the finale, I have no doubt that he’ll make a full recovery for season two and allow the Fred-Hermione-Hiram love triangle to come to fruition. I’m only this cynical because I was promised a show that does not live up to all of its statements. We cannot keep sitting idly by, passively consuming media and pretending it doesn’t have an effect on society. Employing a diverse cast is one thing. Not using a third of those actors in the actual episodes is another. Claiming to be the epitome of progressive teen shows only to have an underwhelming representation of anything we haven’t already seen, and expecting to be praised for it, is bullshit for lack of another word. With a fanbase as big as it already is, wanting more from a show that also wants to be more isn’t a lot to ask.

Author: Leandro Henriques

A pocket-sized Gemini with a lot to say.

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